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I think there’s only one trick to pita bread.  The oven has to be really really hot. Really.

If you have an oven that will heat up to that kind of temperature without a ridiculous waste of energy, they’re fantastically easy and fast – not much preparation and less than 5 minutes to cook – and really delicious with dips or soup, or filled with salad or felafel,  or halved and used as wraps with lunch fillings.

My gas oven is antique, and it doesn’t readily get up to the 250°C  or 500°F  you need to make the pita puff up and create a pocket.  The slow combustion stove probably would get up there eventually. Luckily for me, we have a beautiful Japanese Kamado charcoal barbeque that does it beautifully, and at the same time is perfect for charring eggplants and capsicums to go with the pita. I have a little stovetop camping oven that will do it too. It will only cook one at a time, but since they’re so fast that’s ok.

The Recipe:

Makes 6.

Start the night before with feeding your sourdough starter:

To feed the starter, I take mine out of the fridge the night before, and mix

  • 1 ¼ cups of unbleached bakers flour,
  • 1 ¼ cups of water, and
  • 1 ¼ cups of starter.

Put half of it back in the jar in the fridge.  I am left with 1½ cups of fed starter, to put in a bowl covered with a clean cloth on the kitchen bench for the night. By morning it should be frothy and alive looking.

In the morning:

Mix

  • 1 ½ cups of fed sourdough starter
  • 1 cup of wholemeal plain flour
  • ½ cup of bakers flour
  • teaspoon of salt

Tip another half a cup of bakers flour on the bench and knead briefly. Oil a bowl and swirl the dough ball round in it to coat, and leave it sitting, covered with a clean tea towel, for a few hours to rise.  How long will depend on how vigorous your starter is and how warm the day is. To speed it up, I put it out on the verandah table in the sun or on the shelf above the slow combustion stove.

Prove the Dough

After a few hours, the dough will be doubled in size and springy.  Divide into 6 balls, flour your benchtop, and use a floured rolling pin to roll the balls out into an oblong shape about 5mm thick.  Cover with the tea towel again and allow to prove for an hour or so. (That’s where I was up to in the picture).

Cooking

Heat your oven up to very hot – 250°C  or 500°F.  Put lightly oiled baking trays in to heat up too.

Cook the pita for just 2 to 3 minutes till they are puffed out and just starting to colour.

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I’m loving my everyday sourdough these days. I make a small loaf every second day (since there’s only two of us to eat it on everyday days). It’s getting heavier and heavier as I get the knack!  I’ve got into a rhythm  that is near enough to effortless –  certainly well worth the effort – about 15 minutes all up of actual work spread over 24 hours.  And that yields me the kind of bread that is tempting enough to inspire me to take lunch to work, and healthy enough to eat as much as I like (and I like).

The system is still the same as my Everyday Sourdough.  These days though, the 6.30 am cooked porridge mix is

  • a handful of whole oats (oat groats), cooked for 5 minutes or so, then add
  • a handful of hulled millet and keep cooking for another 5 minutes or so, then add
  • a handful of quinoa and cook for a few minutes more to absorb all the water.

The 7.00 am dough mix has

  • a cup of sourdough starter fed with unbleached bakers’ flour
  • rye flour
  • oat bran
  • linseed meal
  • the porridge mix (above)
  • a teaspoon of salt
  • and enough organic stoneground wholemeal flour (15%protein) to make a kneadable dough

Then the top is sprinkled liberally with sesame seeds and poppy seeds.

It’s a real wholegrain feast with attitude, and enough B vitamins to give me a whole day’s supply in a couple of slices. I haven’t worked out the exact cost per loaf, but even with all these goodies, it’s not much more than $1 a loaf – a fraction of the price of quality bread in the supermarket.

Though I’m experimenting with quinoa and oats and linseeds and sesame seeds, at the moment none of the ingredients are coming from the garden, but all are from sustainable farming done within a few hundred kilometres. Over winter I’ve been baking in the wood stove, which we have going for heating and hot water anyhow, so there’s no fuel use at all. Over summer I’ll use the gas oven, but if I can coincide with when I have it on for dinner or baking anyhow the fuel cost will add very little.

I’m loving it on so many levels, but hot from the oven spread with honey is up there!

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Carambolas (Star Fruit) don’t appear in fruit shops much, and I wonder why?  They’re a really nice fruit, sweet and juicy and full of vitamin C and potassium. If you live in an area where they will grow, they fruit prolifically in mid-winter and you are likely to have a glut of them.

If you don’t live in a carambola growing region, you might like to adapt this recipe.  It works with any sweet, juicy fruit in season the same time as macas – which means late autumn to early spring. With the sweetness of the carambola and the oil in the nuts, these need very little sugar or butter so they’re the kind of treat you can comfortably pack in a school lunch box or have in a mid-afternoon break from too-inactive work!

The Recipe:

Macadamia Meal

First crack your macadamias then use a food processor to blend them into a fairly fine meal. You need 60 grams, or half a cup of macadamia meal for the pastry and another 90 grams or three quarters of a cup for the filling.  Fresh nuts in shell are a different thing to the stale old nuts you find in packets in midsummer, so it is worth making your own.  This tool makes macadamia nuts a realistic everyday food.

Macadamia Shortcrust Pastry

This pastry is so easy, so delicious, and so healthy that you can eat pastry every day and not feel guilty!

In a food processor, blend together:

  • ½ cup wholemeal plain flour
  • ½ cup (60 gm) cup maca meal
  • 1 egg yolk (keep the white for the filling)
  • 1 dessertspoon butter

Add just enough water – a couple of dessertspoons full – to make a soft dough.

If your kitchen is warm, you may need to put the dough in the fridge for a few minutes (while you make the filling) so it will roll out easily.

Flour your bench top and roll the dough out. Cut out 8 saucer sized rounds and use them to line 8 holes in a muffin tin or 8  little tart tins.

Bake for around 15 minutes in a moderate oven until the pastry is firm but not yet browning.  (I don’t bother with beans or rice or anything to blind bake – it stays pretty flat without it).

The Macadamia Carambola Frangipane

You don’t need to wash the food processor.

Slice up 4 carambolas and reserve 8 nice big slices from the middle of the fruits for decorating.

Blend together into a paste:

  • 90 grams carambolas (about 4 fruit after the middle slices have been reserved for decorating as above)
  • ¾ cup (90 grams) maca meal
  • 1 dessertspoon wholemeal plain flour
  • 1 dessertspoon butter
  • 1½ dessertspoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom powder

Beat an egg white until peaks form, then gently fold in the macadamia-carambola paste.

Assembling and Baking

Spoon the filling into the shells.  The filling will puff up but it will rise up rather than out so you can fill quite full.  Decorate each tart with a slice of carambola.

Bake for around half an hour in a moderate oven until puffed up and golden.

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I’ve cracked it –  everyday bread – “everyday” meaning healthy enough for every day (even for someone too inactive to be spendthrift with carbohydrates), and “everyday” meaning easy enough to bother making even on a workday (when all I am looking forward to when I get home is a hot bath and a glass of wine).

Why bother? I’ve had a crush on sourdough for a while now, ever since Celia at Fig Jam and Lime Cordial converted me.  I like a grainy, textured, hearty bread, and after a few goes I had a bread I was so addicted to I couldn’t go back to the supermarket.  But I couldn’t get it to fit in around a workday.

Which is why I’m so happy. Finally I have found a low effort routine for making it work on days when I have to leave the house by 8 am and don’t get home till after 5 pm.

This is a heavy, grainy bread, nutty and chewy, and wholegrain enough to be healthy all on its own.  It takes just 15 minutes to make, but that 15 minutes is spread over 24 hours.  The trick is just getting into a rythum.  I have been making a loaf every second or third day.

(If you don’t have sourdough starter, start asking around.  Since you have to divide and feed it regularly, anyone who has some is very likely to be willing to give you some.  Somewhere within six degrees of separation, there’s likely to be sourdough. Since I’ve got into it, it’s amazing how many sourdough addicts I’ve met.)

8 pm – Feed the Starter and Make a Sponge

Take the sourdough starter out of the fridge.  I keep mine in a jar with the lid loosely on it, so I have to tighten the lid before shaking the jar and pouring half of it (a cupful) into a bowl.

Mix 1½ cups of water and 1½ cups of bakers flour (I use a stick blender, and Laucke Wallaby Unbleached Bakers Flour, which I can buy in 5 kg bags at the supermarket).  Pour half of it back into the starter jar to top it back up.  Add the other half to the starter in the bowl, along with a teaspoon of treacle.

Put the starter back in the fridge with the lid on loosely. Cover the bowl with a clean cloth and leave out on the kitchen bench.

6.30 am – Cook Some Whole Grain

I put the coffee pot on, and while waiting for it, put ¼ cup (2 handfuls) of whole wheat grains on to boil in 1½ cups of water with a good teaspoon of salt.  Boil for 5 minutes, then add ¼ cup of whole millet. Boil for another 5 minutes, then add ¼ cup of steel cut oats and turn the stove off.

7.00 am – Make a Dough

The grain will have cooled and absorbed all the water, and the sourdough in the bowl will be frothy. Mix them with ½ cup bran, 1 cup rye flour,  and 1 cup bakers flour. Sometimes I also add some barley flakespepitas, sunflower seeds or linseeds.

Flour the bench liberally and tip the mix onto it.  Knead very briefly (2 or 3 minutes), adding as much flour as necessary to get a soft dough that is not too sticky.

Put a good swig of olive oil in a clean bowl and put the dough ball in it, swirling it around to coat.  Cover with the clean cloth again and leave on the bench for the day.

5.30 pm – Knock Down the Dough

The dough will have easily doubled in bulk.  Tip it onto the bench and knead very very briefly, just to knock it down and make it into a loaf shape.  Put it in an oiled baking tin.  Sprinkle the top very liberally with sesame seeds and/or poppy seeds. Slash the top with a sharp knife to give it room to rise. Cover with the clean cloth again.

7.30 pm – Bake

The bread has risen again to double its size.  If I leave it too much longer, it starts to deflate again. Put it on the second shelf (that is, not right at the top) of  a cold oven and turn the oven on to medium. (Sorry, I can’t be more precise – my oven is antique – but I think it is forgiving).

8. 10 pm – Begin checking.

Take it out when the crust is nice and brown and it sounds hollow when knocked. Mine takes about 50 minutes from a cold oven to cooked.

I know there’s lots of fantastic sourdough bakers out there – I’d love to hear what you think. Have I missed some tricks?

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Last week of the school term, and it’s been hard finding space for Muesli Bar Challenge recipes in amongst everything else.  But this week is the non-planting week by the lunar calendar, and though I don’t follow it very religiously, it is also a bit too wet for planting (ironically – mostly I complain about it being too hot and dry for planting, but I avoid stepping too much on very wet soil to avoid compacting it).

I have been waiting for apple season to post this recipe.  It is, like all the Muesli Bar Challenge recipes, fast and easy enough to knock up on a weeknight, and low fat,  low sugar, low GI enough to belong in everyday school or work lunch boxes.  Apples are right in season now, and there’s good evidence that the polyphenols in apples (especially in the skin, and missing in the juice) are protective against a big range of diseases, including a heap of different cancers. This recipe also features oats, which are a superfood –  a low calorie,  low GI carbohydrate, with good amounts of B vitamins and several minerals, and a kind of fibre that is really effective at stopping cholesterol being deposited in your arteries.

The Recipe:

Makes 8 slices (You need a shallow baking dish of 8 slice capacity, like a pie dish but preferably square).

Pare or thinly slice 3 green apples.  The wide blade on my grater is a good tool for this, but you could use a mandoline or just a knife.

Put them in a pot with:

  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 dessertspoon sultanas
  • 1 dessertspoon lemon juice
  • Good pinch of  cinnamon
  • Little pinch of cloves

As soon as the apples start cooking they will release juice, so you want just enough water to start them off.  A wet saucepan should be enough.  Cook over a fairly low heat, stirring frequently, for 5 or 10 minutes till they are soft and starting to caramelise.

While they are cooking, in a food processor, blend together:

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup wholemeal self raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 40 grams butter
  • 2 dessertspoons honey
  • 4 dessertspoons low fat plain yoghurt

You should end up with a soft biscuit dough.

Take half the dough and press it into the base of a greased baking dish.  It should be about 1.25 cm (half an inch) thick.  Spread the apple mixutre on top of the base.

Put a little flour on your bench and roll the other half of the dough out with a rolling pin to fit on top.  Press it down so that it is touching the apple mix.  Prick decoratively with a fork all over.  You can also sprinkle a teaspoon of raw sugar decoratively on top if you like.

Bake in a moderate oven for 30 minutes until golden.  (I forgot these and cooked them just a bit too long – they are a little darker than I would like.)

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I promised there would be more Muesli Bar Challenge recipes this year but there’s been too much else to write about.  But a golden zucchini that got away inspired me.  What do you do with a kilo of zucchini? This recipe is in my handwritten book as Wwoofer’s Zuke Bread because the original came to me from a wwoofer years ago.  It’s evolved a bit since then, and I’ve turned it into a muffin to make it more suitable for lunch boxes.

For those new to the site, the 2010 Muesli Bar Challenge was a whole school year’s worth of lunch box baking based on fresh food in season.  The recipes had to be healthy, robust enough to survive in a school bag till lunch time, easy enough for busy parents to bother making, and reviewed by kids as actually preferable to the junk food marketed as “muesli bars”.

Zucchini are right in season and they make a muffin that stays moist.  They have decent amounts of folate, potassium, vitamin A, and phytonutrients, but the main benefit is that they are a good source of fibre.  This recipe also features fresh ginger, which is a superfood – a powerful antioxidant with a whole big list of vitamins and minerals.  I added macadamias too, just because they are just coming into season and gorgeous at the moment but you can leave them out.

The Recipe

(Makes 9 muffins)

Mix together:

  • 1 cup grated zucchini PLUS  ½ cup diced zucchini
  • ¼ cup sultanas
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon crushed fresh ginger (use a garlic crusher)
  • 3 dessertspoons of honey
  • 3 dessertspoons macadamia or other mild flavoured oil
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup wholemeal self raising flour
  • (Optional) ¼ cup chopped macadamia nuts

Spoon into the cups of a muffin tray, filling quite full.  Bake in a medium-hot oven for around 20 minutes until they start to brown, they bounce back when pressed and a skewer comes out clean.

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The local Farmers’ Market this week had apricots, from within 100 miles.  Seduced by memories of apricots I had in Tasmania years ago I bought a kilo.  Sadly it just retaught me a lesson I know so well:  eating local is not just an ethical response to the need to reduce transport of everything, by lots, but also a gastronomic choice that brings its own rewards.

Our northern apricots don’t compare with the golden, aromatic, dripping with juice things I remember from Tasmania.  Tart and thin flavoured, these ones had to be cooked, and even then, I think the recipe works better for me with nectarines  – they’re more adapted to a warmer climate.  Try it with apricots if you live south enough, or otherwise try nectarines or plums instead.

This is the second last  Muesli Bar Challenge recipe before the end of term.

The Recipe:

The Semolina Cream

In a small saucepan, bring to the boil:

  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • 4 dessertspoons brown sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 6 dessertspoons (30 grams) of semolina

Cook this mix, stirring constantly, for 3 or 4 minutes until it is thick and creamy.

Take it off the heat and allow to cool a little while you make the pastry.

The Pastry:

In the food processor, put

  • 1¼ cups of wholemeal plain flour,
  • 3 dessertspoons of butter

Blend for a minute until it resembles breadcrumbs.  (Or you can just mix the flour and sugar and rub the butter in with your finger tips). Add just enough cold water to make a soft dough.  Add it  carefully, spoonful at a time.

Sprinkle flour on your benchtop and roll it out quite thin. Use a small saucer to cut 10 cm circles and put each in a cup of a greased 12 cup muffin tray.

Assembling

Fish out the cinnamon stick and use an egg beater to beat 2 eggs into the semolina.

Fill each pastry case ¾ full with semolina cream.

Slice your apricots or nectarines into wedges and set the wedges into the semolina cream, half in and half out.

Bake the tarts for about 45 minutes in a medium-slow oven.  About 10 minutes before they are fully cooked, spoon a teaspoonful of glaze on top of each tart.  The easy way to make a glaze is to mix a couple of teaspoons of jam with a little hot water.  If you don’t have jam, make a quick sugar syrup with a couple of teaspoons of sugar boiled in a little water until syrupy.  Watch them after you have glazed as they will brown and then burn quite quickly.

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Early season peaches are just coming into season here.  I don’t really grow stonefruit – we are smack bang in fruit fly territory and it’s just too much work.  I have a couple of volunteer seedling peach trees though, and although most years the birds, possums, and flying foxes get most of the fruit,  the trees bear so heavily we get some.  All of it is fruit fly stung but good for cooking, or for eating straight from the tree, ideally shared with some chooks who fight over the fruit fly stung parts as I drop them.

There is good stone fruit growing country on the Tablelands though, within my 100 mile zone but only for a short while, so time to make the most of it.

This is an adaption of an adaption of a traditional Italian recipe.  The original original is Sbrisolona, which has a crumbly texture.  Sbrisoletta is a cake-like version invented by a “Nonna” called Rose – you can find that original here.  It was still a bit too sweet and dessert-like and too crumbly for a Muesli Bar Challenge recipe though, so my niece Rosie and I did some experimenting and made it into a lunchbox Sbrisoletta.

This cake is the most gorgeous way to use lots of stonefruit.  It has very little sugar, a bit more butter than the usual but still within the rules, and it is really easy – 12 year old Rosie made this one.  It is an unlikely kind of recipe – several bits don’t seem right – but it works.

The Recipe:

Makes about 12 squares or slices.

For this recipe you need a shallow cake pan that is 21 cm diameter, or (preferably) a similar area in a square or rectangular shape, eg 18.5 cm square, or 14cm by 25 cm rectangle. Grease it with butter and line with greaseproof paper.

Turn your oven on to heat up.

Plump up a tablespoon of sultanas, by pouring just a little boiling water over them.

In the food processor, blend together

  • 4/5 of a cup of wholemeal self raising flour
  • 2/3 of a cup of semolina
  • 4 dessertspoons of brown sugar
  • 125 grams of cold butter, chopped into pieces
  • pinch salt
  • ¾ teaspoon of baking powder

Blend for a minute until it resembles breadcrumbs – like the first stage of making pastry.

Spread two thirds of this mix over the base of your greased, paper-lined cake tin. Don’t press it down – just leave it as a loose crumb.

Over the top of this, sprinkle evenly:

  • 600 grams of  ripe, juicy peaches (about 6 medium peaches) chopped into small bits
  • Your tablespoon of plumped up sultanas (drained)
  • A tablespoon of pine nuts
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • Grated zest of a lemon

Spread the rest of the dry mix over this.

Beat together and Pour Over:

  • Half a cup of milk
  • 2 small eggs (or one egg and one egg yolk)

Pour this evenly over the top of the dry mix in the cake pan.  Allow it to soak in for a few minutes. You can sprinkle a few flaked almonds on top as decoration if you like.

Bake in a moderate oven for around 45 minutes until set.

Before You Cut It Up

Cover the warm cake and leave to cool for a few hours or overnight in the cake pan.  If you try to remove it while it is hot, it will be too crumbly.  But  overnight the moisture in it spreads out and it firms up and can be cut up into squares that are robust enough for a lunch box.

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Our blueberry bushes are bearing and the farm up the road is selling bags of blueberry seconds so this is the  second in the   Muesli Bar Challenge series featuring blueberries.  Last week’s muffins are a hard act to follow.  This recipe is just as healthy, low in fat and sugar and featuring ricotta, yoghurt, eggs and wholemeal flour along with the blueberries. It takes a little longer to make but still within the Challenge rules of being easy enough for busy parents or kids themselves to make.

The Recipe:

This recipe makes lots – around 20 squares, depending on how small you slice them. I have a shallow baking tray 33 cm by 23 cm which is perfect for it.

Before you start, turn your oven on to heat up and grease the baking tray with butter.

The Crust:

In the food processor, mix together

  • 2 cups wholemeal plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 3 good dessertspoons of brown sugar

Add 3 good dessertspoons of butter and continue processing for a minute until it resembles breadcrumbs.

Reserve 2/3 of a cup of crust mix, and press the rest into the base of your baking tray. Press down hard.

Pop it into the oven to bake for 15 minutes, while you make the filling.

Filling:

You don’t need to wash the food processor.

Blend together:

  • 250 gm ricotta
  • 100 gm low fat plain yoghurt
  • 3 dessertspoons of brown sugar
  • Juice and zest of a large lemon
  • 3 large eggs (or 4 small)

Assembling:

Pour the filling over the crust. Sprinkle in 2 cups of blueberries. They should be almost but not quite covered by filling.

Sprinkle the reserved 2/3 cup of crust over the top.

Bake in a medium oven for another 35 to 40 minutes until set. It will firm up a little more as it cools.

Cool in the tray, then slice up and remove with a cake slice.

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